Thursday, January 08, 2009

Big chili.

Puerto Vallarta is a touristy town-- there's not much way around that fact. But it is, importantly, a town. This isn't a flock of resorts clustered on the beach just for the service of American tourists-- it's a real community with a history and a life of its own. This has its benefits. Instead of being at the mercy of resort buffets or toned-down taco bars, we were able to sample the flavors of the city. There were informal lunch counters, open-air asada grills, and sidewalk empanada sellers all tempting us. And when I saw this taco stand, it's wooden counters crowded with lunch-time diners, I knew I had to try it.

We arrived just at the right time, and squeezed up to the crowded counter as some satisfied customers left. Glancing over the hand written menu dangling above the stewed meats, we placed our order. While waiting for our food, we eyed the clutter of condiments that decorated the counter. As we lifted the ladel out of a plastic bin filled with a deep black-red salsa, the chef caught my eye. 'Careful,' she urged me gently in spanish, 'take just a little. It's spicy.' Oh, that's ok! I assured here-- I love spicy food. She shrugged a polite smile, and reached under the counter, producing a two-inch roasted jalapeno that she rested on my plate with a devious wink. The joke was more visual than anything else, of course-- the biggest chillies aren't generally the spiciest. But to play along, I thanked her and bit in. The skin of the chili was blackened slightly, soft and crinkled as crepe. It left a deep smokey flavor on my tongue with the first bite, which slowly gave way to a green spicy bite. Not too hot, but delicious-- it was a first course that left me with high expectations.

Thankfully, the food itself was just as flavorful. My flimsy paper plate arrived in front of me crowded with food, two corn tortillas browned on the grill and piled with chopped meat, onions, beans, and cilantro. I bit into the taco de birria first, the tender stewed mutton immediately bleeding a savory flavor of roasted peppers. Next I tried the tripas, which I had been curious to try since I landed in Mexico. Upon ordering it, our chef had spread it onto the grill, where it popped and sizzled for a few minutes before she scooped it into the palm of the tortilla. It gave the meat a slightly crunchy exterior that suprised me, and a rich griddled flavor that surprised me even more. I was lucky to have ordered it when I did-- as we sat there munching contentedly, several hopeful diners stopped by to order the tripas, and were informed that I had gotten the last order. Yup, just in time.

6 comments:

a said...

Xander
Those tacos look great of course.

While I don't want to disagree with you too forcefully, I passed thorough Puerto Vallarta some years ago and found it to be on the cusp of real town/tourist playground. while the town is not tiny, about 50 percent of the population is directly involved in tourism. While there is of course nothing wrong with this, it does suggest something about who and what the town serves. While there aren't only hotel buffets and cheesy tourist traps, there are many many such places in Puerto Vallarta. I'm glad you were able to wade through it and find things to your liking.

Regardless of the above, that area is in fact incredibly beautiful and I'm happy you made it down there. Would you believe that Mexico is maybe my favorite foreign country ? I've spent a lot of time all over Mexico and it never ceases to amaze me. The time is coming for another trip...

If you were sticking around the states, which I guess you aren't, I would urge you to brush up on your spanish (if you haven't already) and get lost in Mexico for a while. It's such an amazing country.

Xander said...

I don't disagree with you at all-- like I said, the town is very touristy. We undoubtedly could have eaten every meal at places like Fajita Republic and Daquiri Dick's, where the food is made exclusively for the tastes of foreigners (not that I can honestly speak against either of these places, since I didn't try either of them). But thankfully there were enough spots for locals, where we could satisfy our craving for good food, and brush shoulders with more Mexicans than Americans. This was a quick holiday trip with family, and Puerto Vallarta worked out to be a great compromise-- my family liked to relax and spend their days taking it easy, while Bordeaux and I got to spend our days out looking around and sampling street-snacks.

It reminds me of a trick we learned while working in Phuket-- we had great eating in Phuket Town, but really bad luck on the beaches (for obvious reasons). But we found that eating back from the beaches and the resorts, where the resort workers ate, we could get fantastic meals-- spicy green mango salads, savory roast chicken, and flavorful curries.

And I would LOVE to see more of Mexico (and Central America, and South America). My Spanish is pretty poor- I studied it in high school and at a summer program in Spain- but I'd like to improve it (though I kept mixing up my Spanish and Afrikaans in Mexico-- maybe I'm not smart enough to balance three languages). Mexico really intrigues me, and I hope to see more of it in the future. What I've seen of it has been beautiful, I love the climate and history, and I would undoubtedly like to learn more about different regional cuisines. When Bordeaux and I work that trip out, maybe I'll hit you up for some advice on where to go. -X

a said...

Sorry I came on a little strong on that last comment. I was highly caffeinated and I've been thinking about Latin America a lot lately, so I all too quickly offered some unsolicited opinions.

Feel free to ask anytime. I do have some opinions...

T.R. said...

Wow! Where is the warning sign that says "Caution - do no read while hungry." Grrrrooowwl. I understand completely when you differentiate between a resort community contrived out of empty beach space and one that grows up around a real, thriving town. As you know, part of the art of travel is following your instincts to those around the corner, behind the veneer, places much like you found in Phuket. In this rapidly changing global world we live in -- that instinct must be availed more frequently

Almost 90 countries later, and I chuckle that Mexico remains my favorite. The Mexico of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and the Yucatan peninsula. Wonderful places to get lost in. But, shhh, let's keep that a secret.

Lynne said...

i adore the mexican food in that region!

The Lil Bee said...

I love these photos, Xander. Your life is pretty amazing! My best friend is leaving for two months on her honeymoon to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. One of these days I'll return to Thailand. One of these days...!